Spoiler alert: College Republicans lost—and it wasn’t close. The most disappointing part is that I wanted to be on their side. I am on their side. In fact, I’m 99 percent sure I’m more on their side than they are. They had no studies in their pockets, used statistics sparingly, and spoke with minimal passion in all but a few encounters. Their debating skills were marginal, at best. They failed to challenge half the baseless claims that their party was consistently racially motivated to enact nefarious policies. Their approach was one with which I wholly despise. It was one that, whether fueled by neglect or by expediency, forewent the propagation of the principles that make conservatism great.
For their inability to play ball around my admittedly lofty standard, there are some important things that need to be said in favor of the College Republicans:
1. Though it did not tip the scale of the debate, a number of the questions were indeed rather biased from the moderators. The majority of the questions lobbed at the College Republicans seemed to have a “Your party did this clearly controversial thing, so what the hell do you have to say about that?” vibe to it. I feel no remorse in pointing out that the moderator who posed the question, a student whom I respect, smirked very conspicuously when the Young Democrat turned a question around, stating with ease that Republicans were more at fault for gerrymandering than their opponents. He, along with the honest portion of the audience, knew this to be coming.
2. College Republicans had to toe the line between the Trump “brand of conservatism,” the big-government “Establishment” Republican-types, and the traditional brand of intellectual conservatism (which they rarely defended). Point is, it did seem that the College Republicans were beholden to a few positions with which they did not fully agree but felt the obligation to defend nonetheless. For this, one should grant them sympathy, for the GOP has no shortage of fault in more than a few regards. Having to defend the impulsive, 140-character emissions emanating from Donald Trump’s thumbs is no easy task.
3. The Young Democrats were exceptional debaters. They articulated their points with clarity and, overall, gave the opposite side respect in regard to their opinions. They attacked the logical mistakes made on the other side, which were unfortunately many. They had their statistics and their studies lined up, but they weren’t afraid to deviate when they saw an opening in the College Republicans’ logic.
4. Many here at The Arch Conservative tend to differ in more than a few ways with our friends at College Republicans as well as their parent party in Washington from the offset. To add to the likeliness of disagreement, we realize that we have the gift of hindsight and that we were not the ones being sneered at by 80 percent of the auditorium for an hour. The pressure must’ve been tough, and to criticize from our journalistic safe space does feel a bit impolite. But it’s important.
That said, the College Republicans, in my opinion, simply did much too little in the way of attempting to change any minds.
I do not normally write or even draft pieces in the way that I publish this one. I do not normally write with scorn. In fact, I do not believe that I write with much scorn here; certainly not for any person, at least. Instead, I write from the point of view of a patient learner of the conservative values which, to this day, I have found to be ultimately superior. Since this piece is already so unusual, let’s begin our discussion of the debate at the end. You can find a more organized discussion of the entire debate on this week’s episode of the Weekly Podcast. Here we go:
The Young Democrats’ best debater, a sophomore named Drew, gave an astonishingly eloquent, calculated closing statement about exactly this—the progression from being raised Republican to his enlightenment in the form of a change in partisanship. The philosophy minor in him surely shined. He might as well have been the son of Socrates, he really was a beacon of the usefulness of genuinely sharp rhetoric. I will even go a step further in saying confidently that this particular debater (as is likely the case with many of the debaters, in fact) is much more intelligent than I (Nick). I see no reason to doubt the idea. Yet still, intelligence, emotion, or even empathy do not dictate the best policy.
Drew concluded with a creed that would have rung like music to Barack Obama’s ears: American unexceptionalism. The essence of it? America’s great—great at being racist, sexist, bigoted, homophobic, xenophobic, and all the other forgotten phobias. And here comes the greatest fault on the part of the College Republicans…
Instead of taking their concluding moment to call out the false notion that dissent is the highest form of patriotism, that scorn for America’s founding ideals is actually a love for them, they stayed silent. Instead of taking that moment to talk about the greatest country in the history of the world, instead of talking about great, yes, but fallible men who fought to found a nation based on the ideals that allow all of us, male and female, black and white, to sit in this comfortable auditorium in 2017 and talk about how much we hate those racist, sexist, bigoted homophobes who lived 200 years before our time, they stayed silent.
It was a theme that rang true throughout the night. Instead of talking actual policy, the College Republicans were backed into a corner: on one wall were the Establishment Republicans and on the other was Donald Trump. Instead of fighting their way out, they sat there and blindly tried to defend nearly every action of the collective Republican Party, which is impossible seeing as there are precisely zero things that unite Steve Bannon and Rand Paul ideologically.
The College Republicans halfheartedly defending free market economics when discussing environmentalism sounded like Mitch McConnell talking about “free market solutions.” A real conservative might think for half a second, Hey I agree with you, Mitch. Then half a second later he rethinks it: I’m just not convinced you agree with you. That is, I believe in the free market solutions that one of your legislative assistants jotted down in the memo you’ve been reading for the past 35 of your 40 years as a government official…but I’m also not convinced that you’ve ever sat down to listen to a Milton Friedman lecture or crack open Atlas Shrugged.
They could have cited studies. (Like this one. Or this one.) Or if they wanted to go in a different direction, they could have talked about the Constitution. They could have talked about the importance of the rule of law, not of men. They could have talked about the inherent danger of granting immense power to a group of men, as the other side advocated in each of their answers. They could’ve given examples of the world’s most tragic situations, many of which are caused by the sort of government this other team propagates. They could have defended capitalism with more than a tip of the cap. They could have explained the philosophical purpose of federalism or of the Second Amendment. They could have talked about preserving history. They could have defended tough immigration laws. Hell, they could have even talked Reaganomics. But they didn’t. (Don’t worry though. They did praise FDR and government-funded “infrastructure” in defense of the wall!)
Instead of talking about actual conservatism, they cowered. Perhaps they cowered because of biased questioning, perhaps because of the intimidation of the crowd’s clear bias, perhaps because they felt beholden to their party’s every move, or perhaps the happy hour was just too great to resist that Thursday evening before the debate. Then again, perhaps none of that matters when the future of the ideas that made America and infiltrated the world for the better are at stake of distinction. In a sad showing for liberty and limited government, the intellectual superiority of their wrongheaded opponents won the day. A roar of applause sounded when America was put on trial, and all I could hear on my side of the aisle was an up-and-coming Mitch McConnell.
Nick Geeslin is Editor-in-Chief and Reed Ferguson is a contributor to The Arch Conservative. Both were rather cross during the construction of this piece. It should also be known that The Arch Conservative will reach out at the least to College Republicans for extended comment on the debate.